Some things are universal, especially with teenagers. Interest in music, fashion, shopping, eating, playing games and hanging out with friends are things that seem to transcend cultures for most teens.

That's the case at St. Vincent High School, where a group of teens that traveled 6,000 miles from cities in China to Petaluma are spending four years immersed in American culture and academics. They arrived as freshman and their goal is to get a good education in schools that have far fewer students per classroom than their schools at home, where China's population is now over 1.3 billion.

Not surprisingly, like their peers, these students, now sophomores, love pop music, video games, sports, food and shopping. These are the places their lives converge.

For Steve (his American name — the program coordinator requested that last names not be used because of security concerns), commuting from Sonoma with an American student and being on the tennis team with that student created a friendship.

"We met through sports," he says, "and we spend time every day riding to school, so it's good to have someone you know at school."

The intermingling on a casual basis has made it easier for the foreign students to feel a part of the community.

Winnie, a tall 17-year-old Chinese male student observes on a recent school day, "I played football last fall and got to know the other players. The season is over, so I'm working out with weights to stay in shape."

Winnie, who played wide receiver, bumps fists with a friend passing in the hall. The muscular teen walking by is a lineman on the team and when asked how he views Winnie, he replies offhandedly, "He's just the same as everybody else."

This is exactly what St. Vincent's principal John Walker wants to hear. "The entire goal is to create diversity," he says. "This program benefits both the international and the local students in that it breaks down perceived barriers and gives each group an insight into the other's culture."

Most of the Chinese students are from affluent families and have been attending boarding schools in their home provinces as the only alternative to severely overcrowded public schools. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that almost half the population has migrated from rural towns and villages to urban settings, straining the resources of the larger cities.

For Xin Xin and Vivian, two 16-year-old Chinese girls who are both with the same host family, being away from home and friends is not new.

"I have been at boarding school since I was 13 years old," explains Vivian. "But when my family told me that I should go to the United States to school, I was very sad at first. I cried, but I did not let them see that I was sad."

Things got much better, she says, when she settled in with her host family. Karen Nau, a Petaluma native, former city councilmember and an elementary school teacher, opened her home to Vivian and Xin Xin. "I have a large home and my children are grown," says Nau. "But we're a big family and everyone lives nearby, so there are lots of family gatherings and activities that the girls can be involved in."

The two students agree they are having fun meeting new people, going on excursions with Nau and getting to know the town. "We have met the mayor of Petaluma and done so many new things—Karen Nau knows everyone. She even takes us shopping," says Xin Xin with a grin. The girls experienced their first Halloween, carved pumpkins and ate their first Thanksgiving dinner—"The mashed potatoes were delicious," recalls Vivian.

Free time is not easy to come by for the Chinese students, who are under considerable pressure to do well. They have a jam-packed schedule that includes school, mandatory community service, ESL (English as a second language) classes and the daily task of adapting to a whole new environment. They already feel a sense of responsibility and know that if they want to attend a university in China, they must prepare for the hurdle of the competitive entrance exam known as gaokao. The grueling nine-hour test is offered just once a year and is the only route to admission to virtually all Chinese colleges and universities.

In the meantime, they are still kids, and when asked what they like about Petaluma they respond with comments like, "the weather," and "it's beautiful."

Most also like the relaxed country environment in contrast to their lives in huge cities in China.

There is one other thing they all agree on. "The people here are very nice and always friendly," says Steve, to which the other students give their unanimous approval.

(Contact Dyann Espinosa at argus@arguscourier.com.)